Serious Times and Old-Fashioned Satire (Der Ernst der Zeit und die Satire der Vorzeit)

Die Fackel

When this huge disaster descended on mankind, and everyone comforted themselves with the thought that the machine has a soul, and that in the end the soul would serve it, I expressed my doubt; I was willing to say nothing, and I had the courage to express my silence, so that people could understand how it was meant. What seemed in me to refuse to be censored, was really the awareness that among all abominable facts, only one has the right to prohibit its own negation: war, as long as it exists. It was the feeling that it would not be acceptable to confront a society which experienced the war more as a diversion than as a revolution, a social response which values misfortune as stimulation, and finds heroism an acceptable justification for military supplies; that it would not be acceptable to confront such a time and place in any other way than with the silent longing for an earthquake. And I allowed my self -control to be provoked to the extent of remaining silent in the presence of the language rabble whose tongues were set free, not lamed, by the prospect of indescribable horror; to remain silent in the presence of the most contemptible mob that has ever hidden behind the lines, the poets and thinkers and all the verbose whores of the word who desecrate the morning and the evening, and without whose most terrible anti-cultural effect, which no intellectual force of the times could resist, I am deeply convinced, this war of intoxicated lack of imagination would not have broken out, and not have degenerated into super-inhumanity. Then how much horror could equal this educational barbarity and not be conditioned by it?

My strategic retreat from the public sphere could be optimistically interpreted as the waiting time of one who was condemned to miss God in hell all his life, and whose generally unrecognized yearning was perhaps about to be fulfilled. As a breathing space in a satirical agony, which had hoped for redemption from the end of the world, and now was at least experiencing a very acceptable little world war. Some people believed that now, at last, the rock solid intellect, the bottomless pleasure and the sky-high moral, which was impermeable to Messina, Titanic and chinese crimes of passion[1], would finally lose its intellect, humour and arrogance! There was never a lack of optimists who chose to interpret my rejection of the world as a criticism of reparable affairs, and a text about me which was published in 1913, contains the passage:

We don’t want to anticipate God’s judgement, even in thought; but perhaps, after this war, which one man has made against the whole world, must the world war itself come. It almost seems, even if it is terrible to see such suffering approaching, as though the spirit of brotherly love were calling for it: then what are we going to do with all these intellectuals, and intellectualized Christians what’s more, otherwise! Then they have really done the terrible deed before which every heartbeat, wherever hearts are still beating, stands still, they have really done that for which they condemned Karl Kraus — mortis in nomine laesae majestatis! — to death: they have played poker with the war, and been paid to write about dying soldiers! Perhaps the soldiers and the war must descend upon them.

Now it is here, and I say, never has a heart beaten louder in the awareness of its own irrelevance! What shall we do now with the dying soldiers? Will those who have not fallen, at least go down on their knees? Let’s wait and see. Wait and see what the great times leave behind for us when they finally end, as they once began. Let’s wait and see whether the disgrace which I formulated will have sunk, and with it, wouldn’t that be nice? its artists. I don’t want to be finished without the war performing my tasks. I would then rather help it again, if it doesn’t help me. But let’s not be impatient, and not draw conclusions about tomorrow from today, about the consequences of these great times from their wretched side effects. Even if it seems as though it opposes the forces of the intellect; that the war is not so much the continuation of the struggle against evil, but rather evil itself; that the enthusiastic advocacy of a godless world for the devil’s goods does not just guarantee the enrichment of its ideals. Let’s wait and see. The miracle could occur, poets and thinkers mobilize to announce it, that the souls sacrificed in the service of ready-made goods rise again through the sacrifice of the body. Until then, the intellect which is ready to pounce must tie itself up with a thousand chains, be defenceless when its thoughts, feelings and breathing are blocked, and not react to the thousand insults with which the reading eye and listening ear are assailed every day. The unimaginable fact that the mud didn’t freeze as the regiments marched, holds back the cry. The idea that behind the bleeding quantity, life is unchanged, and behind the new machine the old sentimentality makes a lie of death, pounds at the temples. If this life is still mean enough to demand its rights, then I, who have contested that all my life, will hold my tongue.

And I must, because I am not so cowardly as to fight against censorship. I have the courage to concede to it, even to demand that it finally prevail over me, do its job, and not be afraid of the servants of freedom. We all know that in this country only one thing has changed in the perception shared by all the stumbling individualists. I am not talking about sacrificing bread, which a truly great time decrees without much ado, but with a lot of emotive pathos. I am not thinking about the fact that a popular advert still shows three laughing Viennese types, but their question, „Who’s open? Where can we get a good glass of wine and a bit of a laugh?”‘ has now sacrificed the words „a bit of a laugh”, although there still is laughter. I am not thinking about the emotional upturn of volunteer military suppliers. I am thinking about the struggle against censorship which is agitating all minds, which has only left white spaces in the work of those who by rights ought to be wearing a yellow patch. This most demanding profession is now protesting against the leniency of the authorities who forbid the publication of a few daily truths, instead of being grateful for the countless lies and injustices which they still allow. The press doesn’t realize how good they have it. Do they really believe that the censor would let me reprint the things that appear every day in the Viennese newspapers?

Until he does, and I am prepared to do so, because quoting the disgraceful things which happen in great times would be undignified, until then, I still have to face the question of my attitude to my previous work, which is also just made up of quotations, really. At the beginning of the great times, I felt that I must also withdraw this from audiences, whatever attitude readers may take, because they now have greater noises in their ears, and because those greater events which I am not yet allowed to arrange, cover the eyes of my smaller events, whose identity I am not yet allowed to reveal. However, it now seems that our audience has already become so used to the greatness of the times that groups are no longer formed, and surprises no longer need to put people out. Unusual deeds and suffering are set before the merciless gaze of the dominant cultural power, for whom they happen, to be read, the victim is a film, and life sees willingness to die just as its extra edition, in which it no longer believes. And because my situation has not changed, shouldn’t I be allowed to say how it used to be? No, in view of the astonishing stability of the events from which I drew my raw materials over the last fifteen years, I see no reason to subsequently regret their exploitation, and I am not inclined to cease publication of Die Fackel. No, it’s not my job to stop the hate when disgrace walks naked in the daylight! Let those who differ, and already see the spiritual upturn in the present which we are experiencing, which more patient optimists only expect in the future, let such people regard my creations, with their long-gone inspirations, as cultural historical curiosities. Why shouldn’t people be interested in what it was like in Vienna in the old days, before the 1st August? Then not even the best friend of the world will, by grace of a kind of intellectual amnesty, be able to already find traces of later heroics in the past that I mean. No, let’s stick to cultural history, and imagine, for an evening at least, that it is the freshest, current Viennese reality. Let’s imagine that we have not yet overcome the carnival in ourselves, even if it is officially forbidden, and that we are only in the horrors of battle when we hear the cry , “Extra Edition!”, and otherwise in the horror vacui caused by the absence of the traditional carnival concert of the male voice choir society. Let’s consider whether our entire happy existence is not simply the attendance list in the newspaper report of the ball, transferred to enforced charity, and only the framework changes, but the image gets more and more like speech. If we look at our nightlife, without neglecting our daily life, we see how we flee from the danger into rhyming couplets, and take note of how we are already working on the reconstruction of our ideals, tourism above all; when we listen to the conversations of our contemporaries, and look at the advertizing posters, we ask ourselves if that is not the living reality, and the world war just a dream.

Are those whose military service is profiteering, not alive? Are those for whom the trenches end in the Kärntnerstrasse[2], not alive? Won’t they soon make their contribution in the form of a nail, with which a wooden soldier is to be built, for charitable purposes, once the authorities grant permission for it to be built on the temporary parade square, for the collection, so that a worthy symbol can be erected, and five hundred thousand, that’s half a million, names of those who would not otherwise give a crown, not a last sou, for a blind soldier, will be bequeathed to posterity, and Vienna is building a legend, the reporter in iron, a legend, I tell you, which already has its eye on tourism in 700 years, when you will be able to buy it from the doorman for 20 cents, from the doorman whose golden wedding will be mentioned in the papers, because nothing changes for a legendary people, unless it is that there turn out to be more military suppliers than there appeared to be at first glance, and that some of those who make a contribution now, later make off with a fortune. Let’s stay aware of this and that, and something else, and all the hundred „and”s with which the terrible cashier of world history takes balance of the blood every day, then, oh then, will we acknowledge more readily the cheerfulness of my figures, born of agony, acknowledge more the feeling of living in times of war than this whole reality contains! It’s not that wretched laugh whose job it is to distract us from seriousness and pity, that surfaces. It is rather one which tests whether its victims can support the seriousness, the great mourning, and the greatness which has grown overnight. Humour is not in contradiction to war here. The victims can run away from humour, but not from war. It doesn’t liberate the bad, it liberates the good, who are suffering. It can hold its own alongside horror. It reaches all who are not reached by death. This joke is not funny. But as long as you are aware of that, you can tell it, and laughter at the unchanging puppets of their vanity, their greed and their despicable contentment, erupts like a pool of blood!


[1] Reference to previous disasters, and his writings about them.

[2] The most fashionable shopping street in Vienna

Author: Karl Kraus

Published in: Die Fackel Die Fackel KrausWeltgericht1 Kraus Judgement Day I KrausSuhrkampLesebuch Kraus Suhrkamp Reader

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